If honeybees disappear, they’ll take some of our healthiest foods with them.
One day early last spring, Ed Olson’s life got much harder. A few weeks earlier, Olson, a commercial beekeeper, had delivered 200 of his 500 hives of honeybees to an almond orchard in Arbuckle, California. There, the honeybees would do their part buzzing up and down rows of fragrant, flowering trees, helping to make California’s Central Valley the almond capital of the universe.
Like more than 100 of our food crops, almond trees will set fruit only if their flowers are cross-pollinated between two different varieties. Like tiny farmworkers, honeybees carry the pollen from one tree to another as they forage. Corn, wheat, rice and other grains rely on wind to spread their pollen. But honeybees pollinate much of the other stuff that adds color to our plate and vitamins and antioxidants to our diet. They give us blueberries, apples, berries, cherries, melons, grapefruit, avocados, squash, broccoli, carrots, onions, and more. If it lowers cholesterol, improves eyesight or turbocharges the immune system, it was probably fertilized by a bee. A surprising amount of our well-being rests on those tiny striped backs—and on the beekeepers who haul 2 million hives from crop to crop every year, renting them out for pollination.
When Olson had checked the Arbuckle hives the previous fall, they had been some of his strongest. The more bees in a hive, the more pollinating power it has and the more a farmer will pay to lease it. But now, as Olson, with the lanky frame and graying mustache of an Old West gunslinger, approached the first group of 24 colonies, he sensed something was off right away. There weren’t many bees flying. It was a shimmering spring day in northern California and sunshine was glazing the soft pink rows of budding almond trees: perfect flying weather for a honeybee. Olson cracked open the top of the first hive, looked inside, and immediately his stomach sank with disappointment: no bees. It was a “dink”—the beekeeping term for a colony that has died or dwindled. Just like that, he was out $200, the pollination fee for a strong hive.